The Music Lovers

This is the painter John Singer Sargent, writing in 1880 to his friend Vernon Lee after a trip to Spain and North Africa:

You wished some Spanish songs. I could not find any good ones. The best are what one hears in Andalucia, the half African Malagueñas & Soleàs, dismal, restless chants that it is impossible to note. They are something between a Hungarian Czardas and the chant of the Italian peasant in the fields, and are generally composed of five strophes and end stormily on the dominant the theme quite lost in strange fiorituras and guttural roulades. The gitano voices are marvellously supple.

If you have heard something of the kind you will not consider this mere jargon.

What strikes one is the assumption of shared expertise. Had Sargent heard these dismal, restless chants? He seems to have. Had he tried but failed to notate them? A prodigious task for an amateur. Had he counted the strophes and noted the stormy endings on the dominant? It is hard to see, in any of his biographies, where he would have received the kind of musical education that might have enabled him to dash down a useful transcription of a fioritura, let alone a guttural roulade.

This is one of the mysteries of Sargent and Vernon Lee (the British writer who is always referred to by her full nom de plume rather than her given name, Violet Paget). Born, both of them, in 1856, into the expatriate world of the great Italian cities and the shabbier culture of the minor European spas, they had somehow devised their own educations on the hoof. They were both multilingual, but Vernon Lee did not have the remotest connection with university or college life. Sargent was clearly destined to be an artist, and in due course he took the conventional first steps, enrolling in a reputable Paris atelier and exhibiting at the Salon.

But he was also, to a mysterious degree, a musician. One thinks at first: Oh, but everyone in that world, in those days, was a musician in some sense. Then we learn that Sargent’s talents gravitated toward the fiendishly difficult end of the repertoire: he could play Isaac Albéniz’s piano suite Iberia (1905–1909). That alone puts him in the elite. According to the violinist Joseph Joachim, he could have been a professional musician. Sometimes it was said of Sargent that he did not necessarily play all the notes but had a gift for seizing on what was essential. That in itself would have been a sign of profound musicality. It offered a way of responding to the occasion. Supposing, for instance, a group of friends were sight-reading a four-hand piano transcription of Wagner’s Ring (the kind of thing Sargent’s circle liked to do), they might be grateful to have him as first piano, giving impetus to the rest.

Vernon Lee did not have the same musical gifts as Sargent. When reading a score she needed to pick out a melody laboriously on some instrument. She did take singing lessons, for which she lacked the necessary application, and she made a heroic stab at learning counterpoint. But she had an intense fantasy that she would somehow hear the forgotten music of the eighteenth century—the music that she reasonably believed to have been Italy’s greatest contribution to the art of the day. It was not then being performed. It was gathering dust in libraries. So she found teachers in Rome and Florence to help her with singing and counterpoint. She enlisted the services of librarians and other old men who had heard the great singing voices of bygone eras, and she must have listened avidly to their stories, for they made her welcome, arranged for her to have their scores copied, and helped her in her pursuit of, for instance, the arias that, sung always by the castrato Farinelli in the same order, had calmed the madness of King Philip V of Spain. In due course she began to see such stories as legends. But at first the arrival at her home of these laboriously copied scores produced in Vernon Lee an anxiety so intense that she could not bear to hear the music directly, as her mother played it for her benefit. She had to listen from the next room or through an open window.

She was, when she embarked on this lone musicological quest, thirteen. For most of it she was barely old enough to be allowed out of the house without a maid, and the ten days of study in the library of the august Philharmonic Academy in Bologna, which she undertook in the company of Sargent, must have been made possible by the presence of this responsible family friend and male chaperone. He brought his watercolors and copied the portraits in the library, which included distinguished alumni of the academy—Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart—along with a host of forgotten figures.


Sargent was right to expect Lee to have an informed sensitivity to musical idiom and genre, though we must not expect from her, or from him, the kind of response that comes from a long daily acquaintance with recordings of early music. Quite the opposite. They lived at the dawn of the early music revival, before it was yet known as such, but were receptive to what it might offer. Their reactions may sometimes puzzle us. Vernon Lee’s description of a Palestrina mass, for instance:

Some time ago I heard, for the first time since my childhood, Palestrina’s great Mass of Pope Marcellus; and I was much struck at finding that my impressions of this music differed only in their definiteness and more thorough understanding from the impressions which years ago I used to experience when listening, a thin and long-legged little savage of twelve, amidst the crowd in the Pope’s Chapel. The music was all about nothing at all. I can remember my childish wonder at the way in which the music went on. At that incessant movement which never leads anywhere, that incessant crossing of lines which are not woven together…

She is describing a child’s early experience of Renaissance polyphony. Who else has left us such a description? What other child? Vernon Lee had heard the celebrated Pope Marcellus Mass at least twice in her youth, and in the Sistine Chapel, too—the mass that is supposedly Palestrina’s response to the musical requirements imposed by the Council of Trent. (Hans Pfitzner wrote an entire opera about it, Palestrina.) In this context, “The music was all about nothing at all” comes as a surprise. And she seems to mean it as a compliment.

If we look for a piano teacher of genius who forced Sargent to acquire the foundational skills that would enable him, in due course, to play the works of his friend Gabriel Fauré in a way Fauré might respect, then it seems to me (after looking) that we will not find one. Sargent in the last resort can only have been his own teacher. But if we ask who might have encouraged Sargent and Vernon Lee to pay attention to the songs the peasants were still singing in the fields, and to try at least to make some record of this folk art, then a few names crop up, among them that of Alma Strettell, for whose collection of Spanish and Italian songs Sargent provided illustrations (and whose portrait he painted). She must have been a fearless collector of the songs of the Sicilian underworld—she mentions “songs of challenge, suspicion, affront, and ridicule,” and the vicariola, named after the Vicaria, the great prison in Palermo.

If her translations of these songs are forgotten today, it would be because they use an antiquated vocabulary and grammar. They come from surely the most astonishing person in the folk music revival of the period, Carmen Sylva, aka Elisabeth of Wied, queen of Romania. Here she is, introducing Romanian folk songs for a collection she and Strettell translated in 1891:

The young poetess [Elena Văcărescu] to whom we owe the discovery of these songs spent four years collecting them among the peasants on her father’s estates; and even though her family had for centuries been known and honored by this race, yet she encountered many difficulties in trying to induce the peasants to repeat their songs for her. She was forced to affect a desire to learn spinning, that she might join the girls at their spinning-parties, and so overhear their songs more easily; she hid in the tall maize to hear the reapers crooning them; she caught them from the lips of peasant-women, of luteplayers…of gipsies and fortune-tellers; she listened to them by death-beds, by cradles, at the dance and in the tavern, with inexhaustible patience. They are worthy to rank with the best national songs that India, Arabia, and the far North have given us.1

This is not only an intensely romantic picture of a feudal song-collector—the aristocrat hiding in the tall maize, cocking an ear to her father’s crooning reapers. It also confirms the impressive range of musical reference that Sargent takes for granted when addressing Vernon Lee: Hungary, Africa, Arabia, and “the Far North” (meaning Finland, perhaps)—they all seem to have known no barriers to their enthusiasms and their research. They loved the small country with its evanescent heritage of song as much as two of them, at least, loved the music of Wagner—Wagner who in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (as they would have called it) taught the audience (or appeared to teach them) how to compose a prize-winning melody in the grand medieval manner.


Strettell and Sargent were Wagnerites—of course they were Wagnerites. On warm summer evenings in the Cotswold village of Broadway, by that grand escarpment where Fish Hill leads abruptly down to the Vale of Evesham, after a day spent at the easel or basking in bright meadows, decked out in the beautiful fabrics Sargent had collected on his travels, they would gather at the piano and undertake to relate how Wotan, on the breaking of his spear, had called all his heroes to cut down the withered world-ash and stack its faggots in a mighty pyre around Valhalla. Sargent would take first piano, Strettell (no doubt fresh from either the Romanian cornstalks or some perilous Palermitan adventure) the second. Strettell and Sargent called themselves “co-maniacs” in their love of Wagner. Here is one Miss Heyneman, in London, recalling Sargent at an evening of home music-making in a Bayswater music room:

It was a very hot night in July and Madame Blanche Marchesi and Denis O’Sullivan [both celebrated singers] worked through the whole of Tristan, taking all the parts—tenor—bass—baritone—contralto or soprano in turn, even singing the chorus parts together. The windows were wide open and a great crowd collected outside, for both Madame Marchesi and Denis O’Sullivan were plainly visible, and both in wild spirits accompanied their singing by very dramatic gestures. Mr. O’Sullivan had taken off his coat and was wearing a Japanese kimono, Blanche Marchesi was of course in evening dress, but Mr. Sargent had not succumbed to the temptation of divesting himself of anything. They were all too absorbed to be conscious of heat, or any other discomfort, but when they had come to the end, the unhappy pianist rose with his shirt and collar wilted and feeling and looking as he expressed it like “claret frappé.”

Tristan comes in at four hours and forty minutes, give or take.

The Artist and His Models

How many artists’ models are known to us by name? Vasari mentions one, the unfortunate Pippo del Fabbro, an assistant to the sixteenth-century sculptor Jacopo Sansovino. Pippo was made to stand around naked on winter days, posing for a statue of Bacchus. This drove him mad. He was often to be found, Vasari tells us, wrapped with cloth, like a clay model, and striking sculptural attitudes as a prophet, an apostle, or a soldier. He would climb to the workshop roof and pose nude among the chimney pots, repeating Bacchus’s raised arm, a novel pose that had made his master famous.

Models in the Renaissance were typically studio assistants, and typically male. In later centuries, male models being easier to find than female, it remained common for young men to pose as women. Women were reluctant to pose in the nude, considering it a greater disgrace than offering sexual favors for money. But this imputation of prostitution did not extend to men, who might be chosen from the ranks of the military for their excellent physiques. When Rodin needed a male model for The Age of Bronze, he applied to the Belgian army and was sent by their commanding officer a choice of nine strong men, from whom he chose Auguste Neyt, a télégraphiste.

We know exactly who Neyt was. No scandal (as far as we know) is attached to his name. But he does have a name, unlike the women who, over the years, were recruited from the brothels of London to pose for the Royal Academy, and who probably used pseudonyms. The soldiers who posed for Benjamin Robert Haydon at the time of the Napoleonic Wars knew each other, and knew Haydon, by name, and they reported back to the artist on what had happened to his models on the battlefield. Haydon wrote in his autobiography:

The description of the men was simple, characteristic and poetical. They said that when the Life Guards and the Cuirassiers met, it was like the ringing of ten thousand blacksmiths’ anvils. One of them knew my models, Shaw and Dakin. He saw Dakin, while fighting on foot with two Cuirassiers, also on foot, divide both their heads with cuts five and six. He said Dakin rode out foaming at the mouth, and cheered on his troop. In the evening he saw Dakin lying dead, cut in pieces. Dakin sat to me for the sleeping groom on his knees, in Macbeth.

The male models of the nineteenth century were remembered by name and for their individual work. The gods who had routinely confiscated their genitalia in a sterner neoclassical era had by and large relented. They were often granted pubic hair. (Women had to wait for that embellishment.) They were named for their families and for the Italian villages from which they came. In Rome, London, or Paris they were part of the artistic scene.

The women had Christianity to contend with, as in this extract from a lecture by the artist J.C. Horsley, R.A. (one of the texts held up for ridicule by James McNeill Whistler in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies):

If those who talk and write so glibly as to the desirability of artists devoting themselves to the representation of the naked human form, only knew a tithe of the degradation enacted before the model is sufficiently hardened to her shameful calling, they would forever hold their tongues and their pens in supporting the practice. Is not clothedness a distinct type and feature of our Christian faith? All art representations of nakedness are out of harmony with it.

The Victorians loved nothing so well as a pun, and they nicknamed Horsley “Clothes”-Horsley, in honor of his gallant defense of clothedness.

Sargent’s most important models (as opposed to sitters) were male, and when he found someone he could work with, he tended to keep him for extended periods. Ever since it became possible to refer in a grown-up manner to Sargent’s sexuality (clearly he liked men), a certain nosiness has tinged the discourse—not unnaturally. In Boston, while working on murals, Sargent employed a Black male model, about whose life and experiences an exhibition, “Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent,” was mounted in 2020 by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

To judge by the catalog, not much could be discovered about McKeller, but that little is suggestive. He was a hotel bellhop, in addition displaying his remarkable musculature as a part-time contortionist. This kind of work, whether in a circus or a fairground booth, makes him a member of a sizable contingent of Black entertainers throughout America and Europe—clowns like Chocolat, trapeze artists like Miss LaLa, lion tamers like Delmonico, and a whole cohort of chancers who confused their contemporaries and tease historians today by adopting the names of their professional rivals. If a man said to you “I am the great Bamboula,” you might be wise to take it with a pinch of salt. He might be the Great Bamboula. Or he might have just picked your pocket. Or both. In Toulouse-Lautrec’s depiction of two clowns, the fat white Foottit and the gaunt black Chocolat, Foottit exclaims, as he aims a foot at Chocolat’s backside, “Kindly fuck off, you dirty negro. You are not Chocolat. There exists only one Chocolat—Potin Chocolat,” a commercial brand.

McKeller seems to have been proud of his work with Sargent—unsurprisingly, since the artist was famous and well respected. Paul Fisher, in a catalog essay, indulges in some hand-wringing over the model’s relationship with his employer: “Was it exploitative, or was it close, affectionate, or erotic (on one side or both), or that of an artist and his ‘muse’?” If, he goes on, Sargent had physically manipulated McKeller (arranging his limbs so as to achieve the position he had in mind), this would be “a dynamic particularly troubling…given the history of subjugation and sexual objectification of African Americans.” But perhaps McKeller derived pleasure from modeling, which was akin to his work as a contortionist.

Firsthand accounts of painter and model working together are extremely rare, but there exists in the Smithsonian an unpublished account by Anton Kamp, who, as an art student in Boston in the 1920s, sat for Sargent and dictated his recollections decades later. It makes for a wonderful memoir (which Fisher makes good use of in his essay), and it is surprising that nobody seems to have thought of publishing the entire text in some form, considering how valuable this kind of material is as part of the history of the private life of painting.

Kamp relates how, one summer day at Boston’s L Street Bathhouse (presumably a pick-up place), he passed the time assessing some of the bathers “with a fine physical showing” and wondering if one or two of them might not model professionally. On the spot he decided to pay Sargent a visit and see if he needed someone for that purpose. Sargent in this period was engaged not in the kind of society portraiture for which he remains chiefly famous, but in various wall and ceiling paintings in an academic style that have attracted rather less enthusiasm.

Sargent’s career had developed, over the years, this curious bifurcation. He still occasionally painted society women and their husbands, clothed; and he drew or painted men, but not society men, in the nude. The first thing the nude male models had to accept, in order to prosper in this work, was not the possibly erotic nature of the transaction; it was the class implication of working in the nude. The models who turned up for work at the Victorian artist Lord Leighton’s studio were directed to use a separate entrance, like tradesmen. Whoever they were, they had lost caste. Soldiers, who were used to acting under orders, were inured to the loss of privacy in barracks life. And every soldier knows his rank.

An exception to the class rule could be made in the case of fellow art students (in the absence of funds, they might model for each other), and Kamp quickly tells Sargent that he has done this kind of work for other artists. But still, he must have needed all his courage to make a cold call offering his services. Clearly he had a plan, or he developed one very quickly. He seems to have informed himself about Sargent’s studio practices and drawn the conclusion that there might be a vacancy to fill. The vacancy would be for a studio assistant, but just how much that term might imply is something Kamp can only have guessed. He begins, as requested, by stripping, and in due course he earns a gauche and suggestive compliment from Sargent, delivered “with a twinkle in the eye”: “I believe Phidias would have enjoyed you being about his workshop.” In next to no time he is making himself useful. Useful is the first stop on the road to Necessary. Sargent wonders aloud where he might find a violin. (He is working on an allegorical figure of Music.) Kamp knows where one can be found, easily and inexpensively, in the neighborhood pawnshops. Sargent has difficulty arranging the drapery on his model. Kamp volunteers his mother’s services to iron the sheet. Here is an intimate moment in a session:

When I arose to unlock, as it seemed, my somewhat painful bones, I saw him smile as he looked at my hind-quarter where the pattern of the upholstered cushion I had squatted upon was deeply impressed in my buttocks. It was the second time in our to then brief association that I saw him show anything other than a reserved attitude.

Looking at Sargent’s work table, Kamp notices

many tubes of color…strewn about, some Windsor and Newton, some Hatfield, along with others which we art students considered inferior, made by Devoe-Reynolds and Wadsworth-Howland. Yet here was ample proof that a master can take anything, putting it to good use with excellent results.

This moment of fastidiousness (Sargent was capable of using cheap paint!) is one of several in Kamp’s account where we are grateful for the art student’s eye. He speaks as one who can anticipate some basic questions we might have. Sargent was famous for seeing into your soul. How did he do that? How did he catch that moment? He allowed the model to relax for a while, at a time when he wasn’t working on any specific task. Then he would see something. “Whatever I did,” says Kamp, “at the moment brought forth a request to hold a minute. Then drawing a chair toward me he sat down gazing at me intently. ‘Please remain as you are while I get some paper,’ was his only remark.”

At a certain point in the day’s work, Sargent might relax and produce studies that had

no special purpose in mind concerning the decorations, simply the outcome of a moment when the routine imposed on Mr. Sargent by the murals could be sidestepped, indulging what might be assessed as an inspirational diversion.

Kamp had been familiar with Sargent’s powerful nude oil study of McKeller (which he kept in his studio) and had no problem classifying it as a work of this kind—an “inspirational diversion” with no specific project in mind.

There are at least two ways of reading Kamp’s memoir of Sargent. One is as a significantly incomplete account of a master-and-pupil affair. Another is as a story of an exceedingly circumspect man at the height of his fame who is well experienced in the ways of the world, who sees Kamp coming a mile off and is determined not to let him become a problem. It is hard to say which scenario is more likely. It is worth mentioning, though, that we have reason to suspect that the evidence of Sargent’s erotic life has been, to some minor extent, tampered with, or toned down. An album of male nudes the artist kept over the years is now missing. And in 1949 Sargent’s sister, Violet Sargent Ormond, wrote to the director of the Met, Francis Henry Taylor:

I have a quantity of sketches, studies, some water colours, & some drawing by my brother. I should like to give them all to you, to dispose of as you see fit, to give to art schools, museums, or students, where you think they might be of service. You would have an absolutely free hand, even destroying those you consider of no interest [my italics].

Every executor of a considerable estate is liable to face a choice of this kind, and one has to admire Violet Ormond’s effort to make herself clear, and to avoid creating problems for the Met. Her language is delicate, as is the language of Taylor in his reply. She seems to be saying: There is a problem here, which I don’t think I’m the right person to address. Taylor is reassuring: “I am rather familiar with the problem of distributing these drawings because the late Tom Fox and I some years ago distributed all the sketches and drawings which were in Mr. Sargent’s studio in Boston.”

Taylor was writing this in 1949, at a time when Sargent’s fame was not as secure as it has since become. It was reasonable to think that this reputation might not be furthered by the steamier studio work. He was in a position to intervene twice: once in Boston and once at the Met. But he did not intervene in the case of the drawings of McKeller at the Isabella Stewart Gardner. Perhaps nobody asked his opinion.

Sitters High and Low

There were men who were paid to sit, and men who paid to sit. There were (occasional) women who were paid to sit, and there were (many) women who paid to sit (or whose husbands paid for them). There were also, easily forgotten, women who, though they retain their clothedness, seem unmistakably to belong, in some sense, to the backstreets of Venice. Sargent depicted them in works that he was unwilling at first to exhibit, although they are not seen performing any scandalous acts.

One, in The Sulphur Match, is tilting her chair somewhat precariously while her male companion lights a cheroot. Maybe she has knocked over the flask of wine at her feet. Others are seen in nameless surroundings, ill-lit interiors, or, in many cases, in groups engaged in the ubiquitous homecraft of the time: making glass beads from the bunches of rods that they carry. The attractive exhibition “Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” (which I saw at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut) brought together not the standard Venetian views, with their sense of distance and scale, but rather views of the side streets and smaller squares, and groups of women of the lower class.2

Venetian Glass Workers; painting by John Singer Sargent

Art Institute of Chicago

John Singer Sargent: Venetian Glass Workers, circa 1880–1882

Whistler was a pioneer of this Venetian picturesque, with its delight in crumbling walls and reflecting surfaces of canals and lagoons, executed in etching and drypoint. He is cited as an admirer of Canaletto the painter, but we are left with the question: What did Whistler know of Canaletto as a graphic artist? Was he able to view the drawings or the rare and very beautiful etchings of Venice, which surely would have appealed to him? There are some three dozen of them and, just as Whistler’s do, they tend to avoid the famous views (the Grand Canal, St. Mark’s, and so forth) in favor of the Venetian mainland—Mestre, Dolo, Marghera—and “imaginary” renderings of cities like Padua. When Whistler first exhibited his Venetian etchings, they were considered in some quarters eccentric to the point of perverse. The painter Walter Sickert said, “It worries me, and spoils my pleasure, to see the Salute on the Giudecca and San Giorgio on the Zattere. Whistler is great, but so is Venice.” But perhaps such liberty of invention is something Whistler picked up from the Venetian tradition.

Sargent addressed the Venetian interiors in his best Spanish style, giving a noble tone to scenes of labor and the poor, much like the tone of his American friends’ lodgings at the Palazzo Grassi, where it connotes the opposite: wealth and leisure and a hint of Las Meninas. He did not build up a comprehensive graphic oeuvre—etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, and the like. He seems to have been content to leave that to the prolific Whistler, who made not far short of five hundred etchings. Sargent, by contrast, created half a dozen lithographs. Yet in that era there was widespread interest, both professional and amateur, in techniques of printmaking. It is almost as if the two artists divided the available work between them: Whistler took etching and pastel and the cognate arts; Sargent took watercolor sketching (in which he was undoubtedly schooled at first by his mother) and oil. The two painters shared the art of portraiture, in which they both excelled, producing works that ignited controversy at the time but that have retained or regained their place in public consciousness. Whistler’s Mother, the butt of so many jokes and parodies, and The White Girl retain their power. Once you become accustomed to Whistler’s habit of labeling his paintings as if they were abstract work, they lose much of their controversiality.

A test comes for the portraitist when his oeuvre is gathered together under one roof, and we see how much of it is dependent on a knack, on a skill that repeats itself. This may be a problem with Whistler, but it is not a problem with Sargent, whose careful, dictatorial vision was clearly on guard against repetition. The stories of his being difficult, of his inviting the sitter to bring a selection of gowns and then rejecting them all in favor of the one she happened to be wearing that day, and of his obsessive repainting are really about not repeating himself. To be instantly recognizable, yes, but not through some trick or mannerism.

At times, with Sargent’s most intense portraits, one almost wishes to turn away, as from Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, who returns the painter’s searching look with an expression that seems to say: I know your reputation, but I have nothing to fear from you. At times too one is astonished, notably at the green beetle-wing dress, with its accompanying purple cloak, that the actress Ellen Terry wore for the role of Lady Macbeth, and for that memorable moment, painted by Sargent, when she tries on Duncan’s crown. That moment is not, of course, in Shakespeare. It is the creation of the designer, Alice Laura Comyns Carr, and part of the astonishment comes from the fact that the dress is embroidered with real iridescent beetle wings, and that dress and cloak have survived in such fine shape. Most of the portraits one might wish to see came to Boston for the exhibition “Fashioned by Sargent,” which went on to Tate Britain in February.

About the portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, we are told that when it was first shown in 1888, “many comments alluded specifically to rumors of an alleged affair between Mrs. Gardner and a younger Boston writer.” The hands in the portrait were thought to be suggestively placed. The rumored affair had been with the novelist F. Marion Crawford. Punning on a place in New Hampshire, the jokers said that Sargent had painted Mrs. Gardner “all the way down to Crawford’s Notch.” Gardner was mortified enough by this joke to refuse to display the portrait during her husband’s lifetime.